(MC1 Tommy Lamkin / U.S. Navy)
TEL AVIV — Israeli military leaders plan to greatly expand the nation’s elite commando force to accommodate intensifying demand for stealthy, surgical, strategic missions far from Israel’s borders.
In interviews here, officers and experts said Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, is mulling several options for augmenting the special operations forces under his command, including creation of an airborne insertion and extraction unit built upon a squadron of U.S. V-22 Ospreys.
The prospective new unit or, alternatively, a strengthened Shaldag (Kingfisher) airborne commando unit, would ultimately be integrated into the IDF’s planned Depth Corps, a joint special operations command expected to become operational this year.
The IDF announced plans to establish Depth Corps last December, characterizing its “primary task” as “extending joint IDF operations into the strategic depth.” Elite units to be consolidated under the new command include Shaldag, Sayeret Matkal (General Staff Reconnaissance) and Flotilla 13.
The joint special operations command and the prospective new unit, which would not become operational until later in the decade, come in response to the drastic increase in the number of special missions conducted by the IDF in recent years.
In a rare interview published April 25 in Yediot Ahronot, Israel’s largest daily newspaper, Gantz acknowledged a “tens of percent” increase in special missions operational tempo as compared to previous years.
“You almost won’t find a point in time that nothing is happening somewhere around the world. … It’s not my invention, and I am not taking credit. I am simply accelerating all those special operations,” Gantz said.
The article noted that under Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of staff who hailed from the Golani infantry, the Israeli military was postured for two distinct conditions: war and planning for war. Under Gantz, a paratrooper and former Shaldag commander, the IDF has added a third condition: preparing the infrastructure for war through special operations in enemy territory on a routine basis.
Amir Bohbot, a military analyst here, estimated that the IDF has more than doubled the number of special operations conducted since the years prior to the 2006 Lebanon War. In a late March online report for Israel’s Walla website, Bohbot said current and former special forces officers have warned that the routine pace of special operations forces has begun to stress already-overtaxed commando units.
According to Bohbot, IDF’s shadow army targets two axes used by terrorism groups for smuggling weaponry and other contraband, primarily from Iran, into Gaza, Lebanon and Syria. Israel’s military censor strictly forbids reference to areas from which Israel operates, but smuggling routes are well-documented.
The first known route is a seaborne path that originates in the Gulf of Oman and extends around the Arabian Peninsula into the Red Sea, after which illicit cargo is offloaded for overland smuggling through Sinai or — less frequently — transferred to ships passing through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean.
The second is a direct air corridor between Iran and Syria, after which cargo is delivered by ground transport or ship to Lebanese ports.
In an interview earlier this year, a senior Navy officer attested to the accelerated rate of special missions conducted by Israel’s sea service.
“The war between wars is a huge part of what we do, and I’m not willing to go into details. Suffice it to say we’re heavily involved in missions in all kinds of places … and when we do these missions, first and foremost we need to know how to bring our people back safely.”
Sources here said detailed organizational plans, budgetary requirements and the operational concept driving the new joint Depth Corps will be submitted to Gantz in June. By August, the IDF General Staff hopes to conclude its multiyear budget through 2017, with initial funding for the V-22 squadron and new naval capabilities likely to be included.
Over the past year, the Israel Air Force (IAF) has intensified its contacts with the U.S. Marine Corps and other U.S. counterparts on the V-22, and has sent pilots to fly the tilt-rotor aircraft. Earlier this month, IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Ido Nehushtan made his own flight in the V-22 from Hurlburt Field, Fla., home of U.S. Air Force Special Operations Command.
In an interview last year, Nehushtan said the IAF was developing “a deep acquaintance” with what he called a unique platform.
“It’s compelling because it combines abilities of an assault transport and an assault helicopter for flexible, rapid deployment of forces,” Nehushtan told Defense News. “But it’s new territory, and its capabilities are not yet widely understood throughout the IDF.”
At the time, Nehushtan said the IAF included ground force officers on its V-22-related visits “for educational purposes in the hope of pushing it forward in the upcoming multiyear plan.”
A U.S. source said the U.S. Navy and the Pentagon’s International Security Affairs bureau are encouraging Israel and other allies with operational requirements for the V-22, in large part to compensate for the 24 aircraft cut from the U.S. multiyear procurement plan.
“No doubt, the V-22 will be a game-changer for Israel. ... It also will help contain unit costs that will grow since they cut us down from 122 to 98,” the source said of aviation procurement cuts in the Pentagon’s five-year-plan.
He added, “We’re starting to see serious interest there that could translate into a [letter of request] by early next year.”
The V-22 is built by Chicago-based Boeing and Textron’s Bell Helicopter unit.